The heart of the movie is Amy Irving, who plays Mary Ann Simpson, a U.S.-born, fortysomething English teacher. She was once a flight attendant; after falling madly in love with a Brazilian airline pilot, she moved to Rio with him, and then he died, leaving her stranded. (Hmm...Mary Ann... stranded...) She's grown to love Rio; each morning, she dons a swimsuit, a bathing cap and goggles, climbs up on a rock overlooking the sea and dives into the impossibly azure water. Is she swimming for exercise or hiding from the world? Outwardly, she seems happy and sure of herself?she's a self-sufficient woman, a patient teacher and a caring friend. But she's still grieving. She's just not the kind of person who likes to talk about it.
Mary Ann's got a thriving little school. Her roster of students includes a lucrative private pupil?a painfully young and handsome Brazilian soccer superstar named Acácio (Alexandre Borges), who travels everywhere with his manager, best pal and guru, Gordo (Sérgio Loroza). Acacio's just been sold to a British team and wants to land those European endorsements, so he's asked Mary Ann to help him master everything from boilerplate soundbites to the latest in English profanity. (Mary Ann's bemused, helpful recitation of words like "motherfucker" is priceless; it's like she's telling the kid how to say, "soup of the day.") Acacio would like to make their relationship more than professional?he expresses this as subtly as a dog with a boner?but Mary Ann's not into the May-September thing. Acacio's too young and callow; he seems not to have experienced real pain yet. For women who've attained a certain wisdom level, it's not even fun to use a guy like that for sex?not for long, anyway.
Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes) is a fiftyish lawyer who's depressed over the breakup of his marriage to Tania (Debora Block). She left him for a tai chi teacher?a perfect touch. Tai chi is like so many other personal rituals depicted in Bossa Nova: it's graceful and meditative and defiantly private, even when performed on a public pier. Pedro Paulo has a law office, and when he gets a free moment, he goes to visit his elderly father, an elegant tailor whose shop just happens to be located in the same office building as Mary Ann's English school. The lawyer runs into the English teacher on the elevator; he doesn't make a move, but he's so smitten that he impulsively enrolls in her class.
This is a great setup for a romantic pursuit; Barreto and the writers make it even better by giving us, as their central lovers, a couple of serenely unmovable objects. Mary Ann is intrigued by Pedro Paulo's solidity and grace?he is rarely seen without a suit and tie?but she's not the type of woman who'd come on to a student, even one older than herself. Pedro Paulo has mastered the middle-aged Latin American male skill of gazing intently at women without seeming desperate or salacious. When he stares at her in class from one of those humiliating little desk chairs, he could be imagining himself in bed with her or he might be thinking about the stock market; there's not enough outward evidence for Mary Ann to know for sure.
He takes the infatuation to the next level by going over to his father's tailor shop and personally making Mary Ann a blouse. This scheme, played out in an expertly composed and edited sequence, amounts to one of the most exquisite romantic gestures I've seen in a movie. Everything about it is delightful, from the way Pedro Paulo surreptitiously takes Mary Ann's measurements in an elevator?standing behind her, holding his hands a few inches away from her back, shoulders and neck and estimating?to the practiced skill with which he cuts and sews the fabric while his dad looks on, impressed. (Fegundo's big, manly hands sewing a delicate woman's blouse is another marvelous visual gag?and it's powerfully sexy.)
He doesn't give Mary Ann the blouse personally, though; he has a messenger deliver it. She knows only that it's from a secret admirer?you can tell by the way she looks at Pedro Paulo that she thinks it might have been him?but again, she isn't the type of woman to articulate a suspicion like that and risk embarrassment. When Pedro Paulo finally tells her that he didn't buy the blouse, he made it, Irving's reaction is perfect: A mix of amusement, bedfuddlement and awe.
Will these two characters ever get together? Of course. But it'll take a while because they're adults with complexities and entanglements. These two leads are a joy to behold. Fagundes, a great Brazilian actor, has been in a lot of movies and tv shows, but this may be the role that finally makes him a star in America. He's solid and manly but also refined: Robert Mitchum plus Cary Grant. Irving is every inch his equal. This is a Susan Sarandon part?sexy, earthy, intelligent and lived-in; the kind of romantic leading role that's rarely given to American women over age 35?and Irving inhabits it with the sensuous intelligence of a great movie star.
As Mary Ann and Pedro Paulo float around each other, making notes and marking time, Jobim's tipsy pop serves as a sun-kissed Greek chorus. It's dazed music for people dazed by life?the perfect soundtrack for characters who know they want happiness but aren't sure how to get it.
The film's central notion, seemingly contradictory but actually perfect, is that in the modern, high-tech age, people are closer than ever and yet further apart. They could be one step removed from happiness and not even know it; they don't make eye contact unless they have to, don't answer the phone unless they have to, don't take off their walkmans unless they have to. People are forever pretending to be someone else, and chasing other people while ignoring the fact that others are chasing them; the interconnectedness of every character escapes all of them.
Bossa Nova has a multiethnic cast (including veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, in a role so humane, sexy and altogether delightful that he must be thanking God for it), and it derives much of its comedy from cultural misunderstandings. But it's not a wacky piece of condescending ethnic slapstick. It has a farcical structure, full of misdirection, missed opportunities and misunderstandings, but it's not noisy or abrasive, and unlike so many romantic comedies, it gives no sign that it will die if you don't like it. The actors are charming but don't let on that they know it; the characters go about their business and let you watch. Like characters in films by Robert Altman and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), they're all as richly conceived as lead characters, even when they occupy the margins of the story; in their heads, all these people are starring in their own movie. The tone of Bossa Nova is at once calming and intoxicating, like strolling barefoot with a lover on a moonlit beach after spending the day between the sheets. It centers you and sweeps the bad thoughts from your head. See it with someone you want to sleep with.
Framed Lasting Bond: April 28-May 4, the Screening Room is having a festival of Sean Connery Bond movies, including Dr. No, Goldfinger, Thunderball, From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. If you're a Bond buff, you've seen them all a million times, but it's still worth the effort to see at least one or two on a big screen. TNT has turned Bond into a tv phenomenon; the first batch of movies were made with the big screen in mind, and the spectacular widescreen comic-book images confirm this. Listen to how the crowd reacts when Connery smashes that tarantula with his slipper in Dr. No: these films were audience films through and through.
Gen Art: Also of note this week is the Gen Art Film Festival, which screens upcoming indie movies (April 26-May 2). On the bill: Adrienne Shelly's comedy I'll Take You There, with Ally Sheedy as a young woman who hates rejection, and Matthew Huffman's Playing Mona Lisa, with Alicia Witt as a music student torn between the musician's life and the party life.
Torpedoes Away: Times critic Elvis Mitchell doesn't dig as deep as some film critics, but he's always fun to read. I especially liked the line in his U-571 review about how the sonar pings sound like the congas in Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On." This man's mind works in mysterious ways.